Park removes access to illegal bay island

Biscayne National Park rips out an illegal boardwalk and replants mangroves, hoping to halt visits to a small man-made island.

The Miami Herald/March 26, 2004
By Curtis Morgan

It was a tourist attraction only briefly, but those days may already be over for a strange little man-made island in southern Biscayne Bay.

The island, illegally built last year, remains, but Biscayne National Park this week ripped out the only easy way to see it without canoe or kayak -- a 330-foot boardwalk illegally hacked through a federally protected mangrove forest.

Worried that increasing visits would worsen damage to the mangroves and shallow sea grass beds along the shore, park superintendent Linda Canzanelli ordered almost half the park's staff to work on the project. The three-day blitz continued Thursday as workers planted 400 to 500 young mangrove trees to replace ones damaged by the construction of the boardwalk.

''Protecting the mangroves is such a critical concern,'' she said. The trees shelter the small prey that are a crucial part of Biscayne Bay's food chain.

County and federal investigators say the island and a curious hideaway -- including a large aviary, three motor homes and a sun deck -- were built by workers for the former owner of an adjacent property. They believe that owner, listed in Miami-Dade County property records as Celestia De Lamour, is better known as a religious sect leader named Ching Hai.

With the boardwalk removed, only the aviary and island remain. Canzanelli said she hopes to have a contractor remove those from federal property at some point. The problem is cost. Because the island, constructed of large limestone boulders, lies in sensitive sea grass shallows, the job could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Federal agencies still hope to recoup costs from the landowner, but investigators say she and her workers have left the country.

The property next to the island is now owned by the village of Palmetto Bay, which acquired it from Miami-Dade County after police seized it last year.

Village Manager Charles Scurr said he was ''surprised and shocked'' when he encountered a small army of park rangers removing the boardwalk and planting trees Wednesday during a visit to show a British journalist the island and remains of the Ching Hai compound.

The village plans a park on the property and had not yet decided whether it wanted to try to preserve the boardwalk and island, the only site offering a view of the bay.

''I think a courtesy call or some kind of notification would have been appropriate,'' Scurr said.

But Cynthia Guerra, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society, said she was ''delighted.'' Guerra said she had been concerned the village might have pushed to keep the island access based on the argument that the damage had already been done.

''We can't allow this kind of things to stay in the Bay, '' she said.

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